Darker, less playful and certainly more disturbing than Nymphomaniac Vol. I, this second (and final) film is still fascinating in its own right — at least for most of its length. Nymphomaniac Vol. II picks up where Vol. I ended, which is to be expected, since Lars von Trier didn’t intend this to be two films. It’s pure chance that Vol. I had such a perfect ending — part resolution, part cliffhanger — with lead character Joe (played by Stacy Martin as a young woman and Charlotte Gainsbourg as an older one) having become sexually numb and reconnecting with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Vol. II can be seen as affording the answer to that cliffhanger, but it’s considerably more than that. This is where the gears shift and where story and framing story start inching closer together.
The second part catalogues Joe’s further adventures, but they’re no longer so amusing and, despite the slower pace of Vol. II, feel more desperate. Reuniting with Jerome does nothing to reawaken her sexuality, and her best efforts to build a life with him — complete with a child — are doomed. In order to feel something (or anything) she takes up with a sadist called “K” (Jamie Bell) who both tortures her and refuses to have actual sex with her. This is no more than another distraction, and it’s one that leads to the destruction of her relationship with Jerome in a sequence that’s barely one dead toddler shy of being straight out of von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). The allusion to the earlier film is obviously deliberate (it even uses the same Handel piece on the soundtrack), but whether it serves any real function is another matter. Maybe it’s just an in-joke for the faithful. (Frankly, the last thing I want to be reminded of is Antichrist.)
There’s still a good deal of dark comedy to be had in Vol. II. Whether it’s in the guise of two Africans (with prodigious erections) arguing over who does what to Joe — to a point where Joe just opts to leave — or von Trier putting a lyric from The Sound of Music’s “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” into the mouth of a nymphomaniac, the filmmaker’s perverse wit is never far away. One of the more rarefied jokes involves using Mozart’s Requiem as a background score to a scene where Joe tries to bury every possible thing in her life that could possibly arouse her. The vast catalogue of objects is funny enough. The idea that they’re getting a requiem mass takes it to a whole different level of cinematic sarcasm — with the joke on our self-dramatizing heroine.
Her stint as a “debt collector” for the unscrupulous “L” (Willem Dafoe) seems like the film’s most curious tangent, but it ultimately leads us to her weird relationship with her protege, “P” (Mia Goth), challenging the film’s underlying notion that all roads lead to Jerome. It also sets up the presence of a certain Russian author’s idea about showing the audience a gun. Where that leads, however, may well be the least successful — and least satisfying — aspect of the film. It’s not something that ruins the film, but, for me at least, it definitely demeans an otherwise mostly admirable work. Not Rated, but contains explicit graphic sex.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas.